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Ambulance services seeing backlog in the region

John Prno wants Woolwich, Wellesley and Wilmot residents to know ambulances will be coming for them when they are called.

The director of the Region of Waterloo’s EMS services said the recent ambulance shortage has had little affect on the townships.

“It’s affecting (the townships) less than any one else because we have the two rural emergency response units,” Prno explained.

The rural emergency response units are single paramedic response units stationed in the townships from 6 a.m. until midnight each day. They cannot be called back into the city. This provides outlying areas faster service for care, but as they don’t transport patients to hospital, township residents may still be required to wait for an ambulance.

Prno said the region has been seeing an increase in wait times for an ambulance since July 2010. The worst day in recent memory was Feb. 14, when four hours went by without an available vehicle on the road. In situations such as that the region borrows vehicles from surrounding areas such as Guelph for emergency calls, but non-emergency patients are left waiting.

“Where the impact across the system has been is on the next tier (down) of calls,” Prno said. “It may be someone with a broken leg on a ski hill or someone with just a general feeling of unwell.”

When there is a shortage of EMS units lower priority calls can be held onto by dispatchers for up to 20 minutes to make sure a unit is available in case a higher priority call comes in. Fortunately, no patient has suffered a worsening condition because of the shortage.

Longer wait times and lack of available units are being attributed to a general backup in the local health care system, rather than a shortage of EMS resources.

Sue Robertson, vice-president for clinical services and chief nursing officer at Grand River Hospital, said the issue is congestion in the hospitals. Recent months have seen more patients needing to be admitted to hospital for care, but also more patients waiting for spaces to become available in long-term care facilities.
“If we can’t get people out of hospital, then we can’t get them in,” she said. “Then they end up staying in the
emergency department and that just backs up everybody coming in.”

Robertson is quick to point out the emergency room works on a triage system, meaning the most severe patients get treated first and are largely unaffected by the offload concerns. It is the less-pressing cases who are enduring the long waits at the emergency room door.

“I’ve had (EMS workers) tell me they were only able to take one call in a 12- hour shift,” said Prno. Ambulance attendants are required to stay with the patient until a bed is found for them and they can properly be cared for by hospital staff. This means that when the patient waits, the ambulance waits too, effectively making the unit unavailable for more calls.

As the baby boomers age, Robertson expects the crunch on resources will become worse. Finding a solution to what seems like only the beginning of the problems associated with an aging population is not easy.

“Certainly we can’t do this alone,” she said. “It’s a broad system issue.”

In 2010, more than 3,100 calls were responded to by EMS crews in the townships. Wait times have escalated in these areas from around 15 minutes to up to 25 minutes in some cases and as hospitals become more congested patients in every area of the region will continue to have to wait.

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